Crime, Community, and the Shadow of the Virtual

As reformers and abolitionists spar over the future of law enforcement, both camps urge giving the “community” a weightier say in defining public safety priorities. Regardless of whether police departments should be further revamped or instead defunded, a key task will be determining how to grapple with the complicated, heterogeneous nature of communities. The Internet and social media have provided new possibilities, but also new challenges, in confronting that task. The virtual world has provided novel ways for people to connect with each other—new kinds of “communities”—but it has also fed polarization and division, threatening to widen the gulfs between groups with different concerns and different assumptions about the world, and fueling inter-group suspicion and hostility.

Three distinct online conversations about public safety have emerged. “Neighborhood Watch” brings together people in a particular geographical area who are concerned about crime and disorder; it is an online continuation, in a way, of the meetings in church basements and community centers that police departments hosted in the 1980s and 1990s, when community policing had its heyday. “Community Resistance” brings together people concerned about abusive law enforcement, especially police racism and police violence. The paradigm here is the Black Lives Matter movement, which successfully highlighted and organized resistance to the shockingly high rates at which American police kill people of color. A striking fact about Neighborhood Watch and Community Resistance is how separate these two discourses are from each other and how little the two conversations overlap. Both of these online conversations are separate from “Cop Talk,” the use of social media by police officers to share their thoughts about their work and interactions with the public. A series of scandals around the United States over the past decade have repeatedly uncovered examples of officers engaging in online conversations rife with racism, sexism, and a cynical disdain for much of the public they are pledged to serve. Online discussions of policing and public safety thus have exemplified the broad tendency of the virtual world to heighten the dual nature of community: the way that communities serve both to link people together and to divide them.

The internet offers tantalizing opportunities to address the complexity of communities and help reconcile opposing values in public safety rather than paper them over. For the virtual world to assist in this enterprise, though, its weaknesses, as well as its attractions, need to be taken into account. That means, in part, optimizing the internet’s potential to bring people together while minimizing the alienation, fragmentation, and mistrust that online discussions can breed. It means encouraging and facilitating productive dialog—whether or not led by the police—between people with different assumptions and concerns about policing and public safety and working to incorporate the views of people who may not be active participants in any of the existing online discourses we have described. There may be ways to pursue these goals through a range of online interventions, some aimed at platforms and others at users. But the most important responses to online polarization—whether with regard to policing and public safety or with regard to other lines of cleavage in the virtual world—may not themselves have anything to do with the internet but rather with conditions in the real world that the internet draws on, replicates, and in some cases amplifies.

* Marty Berger is a third-year student at Stanford Law School and from 2023 to 2024 will serve as a law clerk for Judge Myron H. Thompson on the United States District Court for the Middle District of Ala-bama.

** David A. Sklansky is the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. We thank Vincent Chiao, Hadar Dancig-Rosenberg, Evelyn Douek, Aya Gruber, Sarah Lageson, and Itay Ravid for helpful criticism of an earlier draft.

The full text of this Symposium is available to download as a PDF.